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The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins

Abstract

Feelings are mental experiences of body states. They signify physiological need (for example, hunger), tissue injury (for example, pain), optimal function (for example, well-being), threats to the organism (for example, fear or anger) or specific social interactions (for example, compassion, gratitude or love). Feelings constitute a crucial component of the mechanisms of life regulation, from simple to complex. Their neural substrates can be found at all levels of the nervous system, from individual neurons to subcortical nuclei and cortical regions.

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Figure 1: Interoceptive pathways and nuclei involved in sensing and mapping body states and generating feelings.
Figure 2: Patient B shows complete destruction of insular cortices in anatomical MRI scans.
Figure 3: Axonal membrane receptors in unmyelinated and myelinated fibres.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by grants to A.D. from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (P50 NS19632) and The Mathers Foundation. We thank our colleagues H. Damasio, K. Man and J. Monterosso for insightful discussions and comments on the manuscript.

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Glossary

Action programmes

A set of innate physiological actions triggered by changes in the internal or external environments and aimed at maintaining or restoring homeostatic balance. The actions include changes in viscera and internal milieu (for example, alterations in heart rate, breathing and hormonal secretion), striated muscle (for example, facial expressions and running) and cognition (for example, focusing attention and favouring certain ideas and modes of thinking). Action programmes include drives and emotions. Changes in body state resulting from an action programme are sensed by the interoceptive system, displayed in sensory maps of the body and may be experienced consciously as feelings.

Drive

An action programme that is aimed at satisfying a basic, instinctual physiological need. Examples include hunger, thirst, libido, exploration and play, care of progeny and attachment to mates.

Emotions

Action programmes largely triggered by external stimuli (perceived or recalled). Examples include disgust, fear, anger, sadness, joy, shame, contempt, pride, compassion and admiration.

Ephaptic transmission

Sideways interneuronal communication that is mediated by extracellular current flow.

Feelings

The mental experiences that accompany body states. Action programmes (drives and emotions) can elicit feelings. Experiences related to exteroceptive senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell) commonly cause emotions and ensuing feelings but in general are not felt in and of themselves. This definition also excludes the use of 'feeling' in the sense of 'thinking' or 'intuiting'.

Homeostasis

The process of maintaining the internal milieu physiological parameters (such as temperature, pH and nutrient levels) of a biological system within the range that facilitates survival and optimal function.

Interoceptive system

A collection of nerve pathways and CNS nuclei dedicated to detecting and mapping homeostatic signals (such as degrees of visceral muscle contraction and internal milieu chemical composition). The main interoceptive pathways are the vagus nerve and the lamina I (spinothalamocortical) pathway. The interoceptive system monitors the state of the body, orchestrates responses thereto and has a central role in generating feelings.

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Damasio, A., Carvalho, G. The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 143–152 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3403

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